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by Eric Kohn
December 20, 2010 3:58 AM
4 Comments
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REVIEW | Not Quite There: Sylvain Chomet's "The Illusionist"

There were several reasons to anticipate Sylvain Chomet's "The Illusionist." The French animator's previous feature, 2003's "Triplets of Belleville," was a surreal masterpiece of conceptual wonder, at once classically entertaining and marvelously bizarre. As one of the most important animators working today, Chomet's long-awaited follow-up attempts a feat that sounds impossible for almost anyone but him: Bringing slapstick genius Jacques Tati back to life. Based on an unproduced screenplay that Tati wrote in 1956 and allegedly composed as a tribute to his estranged daughter, "The Illusionist" attempts to resurrect Tati while also providing Chomet with the opportunity to inject the project with his own particular flair. It fulfills those massive expectations only by being good enough. Tati lives, but the movie flounders.

Despite its star, "The Illusionist" belongs to Chomet from the first frame. Like "Triplets of Belleville," the story begins with a black-and-white performance and then turns to color. Chomet's distinctive 2-D animation, replete with elegant line drawings and an advanced color palette, swiftly conveys the idea of an animated Tati world, where gestures speak louder than words, and makes it clear that Chomet's reliance on animated pantomime in "Triplets" formed a kind of Tati homage that has now been taken to its most extreme realization.

Following the titular down-on-his-luck performer as he drifts through an endless stream of dead-end magician gigs, Chomet develops a moving caricature of Tati's world, viewing the middle-aged man as a droll figure surrounding by fast-paced indifference. Audiences go wild for the rock band that precedes his performance, but drain the room during his standard rabbit and hat routine. Tati always played a solitary figure, but the illusionist character exudes a combination of desolation and boredom that suggests an additional dimension of sorrow that he never quite explored. In that sense, "The Illusionist" successfully relates Chomet's assumptions about the movie that might have been.

The opening scenes contain delightful simplicity. Chomet patiently sketches out the details of the illusionist's aimless life, as he gradually assumes a curious paternal bond with young Alice, a teenager on the brink of adulthood. After encountering Alice mopping the floors following a countryside performance, the illusionist allows her to tag along with him on his trip back to the big city. Once there, they quickly settle into home life, with the illusionist crashing on the couch and Alice paying rent with soup. He keeps her entertained, but eventually can't hide the sad truth of his dead-end existence.

These scenes maintain a gentle storybook feel, but whenever Chomet tries to imitate Tati's filmmaking style, the movie automatically loses momentum. In his six features, Tati could let his static camera run as he explored the unlikely corners of an environment that his bumbling protagonists usually found hilariously inscrutable. But in this context, Chomet's attempts at replicating Tati's unique sense of timing run counter to the narrative, which runs under 90 minutes (Tati's films often ran twice as long). One extended sight gag about an ill-fated carwash aptly mimics Tati's style, but distracts from the central storyline and deflates its emotion.

Chomet's creation of a posthumous performance means, if nothing else, that younger viewers unfamiliar with the French icon's filmography may want to check it out for more of the same lovable klutz. But while "The Illusionist" hardly disservices Tati's talents, it doesn't fully inhabit them, either. He's more akin to a ghostly puppet brought to life by Chomet's imagination, much like the larger-than-life Fred Astaire in the lively sequence that opened "Triplets of Belleville." Chomet acknowledges this duality a little too openly: At one point, the illusionist actually stumbles into a theater screening Tati's "Mon Oncle," and passes a poster for "Triplets of Belleville" -- an overt nod to the hybrid experience Chomet hoped to create.

Sadly, while Tati's career was marked by his increasing lust for invention on a vast production scale, "The Illustionist" is too slight. Tati only completed six features, and this does not retroactively comprise his seventh. It has plenty of other solid delights, though: Chomet sweetly depicts the father-daughter relationship, ably constructing the heartbreaking finish in which they both realize their inevitably conflicting destinies. But the Tati touch never fully solidifies, leaving no lasting effect. In this case, just good enough isn't quite good for "The Illusionist" to do justice to the legacy bend it.

criticWIRE grade: B+

4 Comments

  • James Sage | December 21, 2010 5:34 AMReply

    This review accurately depicts the wide difference in artistic quality of Chomet's previous work and The Illusionist. I tend to agree.

  • asiafilm | December 21, 2010 12:57 AMReply

    How can the critic and viewers not be thrilled with Chomet, who creates some of the greatest work in animation art? Does everything have to be diluted with words, analysis, comparisons, touches of nastiness, and lack of appreciation? It's not just a difference of OPINION or TASTE, it is the missing passion, joy, and excitement of cinema that I miss in the too cool, overly intellectualized comments. What a waste of their hearts and spirits! Films don't have to be perfect - nothing is - to be glorious and delicious....

  • Simon Taylor | December 20, 2010 11:51 AMReply

    Chomet refuses to publicly acknowledge the father/daugher story that Tati had wrote as the central theme to his script that was born out of guilt for the daughter who he had lost contact with. Chomets movie alone does not answer the question of the relationship between the magician and Alice but only opens the question of why did Tati, whose other movies were essentially master classes in exquisite observational comedy; write such a bitter sweet tale. It is only with further research that we find out that Tati had intended The Illusionist to be a cathartic apology to his eldest daughter who he had abandoned during the war whilst performing in the cabarets of Paris.

    Chomet is not Tati in the same way that he is also not Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker or Django Reinhardt. Chomet does not have any of the stage craft or presence that these artists he tries to align himself with had. Chomets portrayal of them is little more than a tacky post-modern marketing gimmick that he shamelessly uses to officiously drag himself along.

  • Lisa Nesselson | December 20, 2010 8:49 AMReply

    RE<>

    PlayTime runs a little over 2 hours. That aside, I "think" the only way a Tati film would run 180 minutes is if the projectionist ran the same print twice.